HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong’s legislature opened Thursday ahead of the planned mass resignation of its pro-democracy bloc, one day after the government ousted four of its members.
One of the pro-democracy lawmakers, Lam Cheuk-ting, unfurled a banner from a balcony of the legislative council building saying the city’s leader Carrie Lam had brought disaster to Hong Kong and its people.
The group had said they would hand in resignation letters on Thursday, but it was not immediately clear when they would do it or even what the proper procedure was. One said the removal of their four colleagues could sound the “death knell” for democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The resignation of the 15 remaining pro-democracy lawmakers would ratchet up tensions over the future of Hong Kong, a former British colony, regional financial hub and bastion of Western-style civil liberties where China’s government has increasingly tightened its control. A new national security law imposed by Beijing this year has alarmed the international community.
The mass departure would also leave Hong Kong’s legislature with only pro-Beijing lawmakers, who already make up a majority but would be able to pass bills favored by Beijing without much opposition.
The lawmakers announced their decision hours after the Hong Kong government said it was disqualifying the four legislators - Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok, Kwok Ka-ki and Kenneth Leung.
The ousters came after China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a resolution this week saying that any lawmaker who supports Hong Kong’s independence, refuses to acknowledge China’s sovereignty over the city, threatens national security, or asks external forces to interfere in the city’s affairs should be disqualified.
“This is an actual act by Beijing … to sound the death knell of Hong Kong’s democracy fight because they would think that, from now on, anyone they found to be politically incorrect or unpatriotic or are simply not likable to look at, they could just oust you using any means,” lawmaker Claudia Mo told reporters.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam defended their removal, saying legislators must act properly and that the city needs a body comprised of patriots.
“We cannot allow members of the Legislative Council who have been judged in accordance with the law to be unable to fulfill the requirements and prerequisites for serving on the Legislative Council to continue to operate in the Legislative Council,” Lam said.
Lam said that the legislature would not become a rubber-stamp body, and that diverse opinions are welcome.
The U.S., U.K. and Australia denounced the move.
President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said it leaves “no doubt that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has flagrantly violated its international commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and its promises to the people of Hong Kong… . ‘One Country, Two Systems’ is now merely a fig leaf covering for the CCP’s expanding one party dictatorship in Hong Kong.”
Australia said the disqualification of the four lawmakers “seriously undermined” Hong Kong’s democratic processes and institutions.
“Australia calls on authorities to allow the Legislative Council to fulfil its role as the primary forum for popular political expression in Hong Kong, and to remain a key pillar of the rule of law and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement.
Britain also said the decision raised further concerns. “This campaign to harass, stifle and disqualify democratic opposition tarnishes China’s international reputation and undermines Hong Kong’s long-term stability,” Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement.
In recent months, Beijing has increasingly clamped down on Hong Kong, despite promising when it took control in 1997 to leave the territory’s more open legal and economic systems intact for 50 years until 2047.
Beijing imposed a national security law in June that some have labeled draconian after anti-government protests rocked the city for months last year, and it has used it to crack down on opposition voices.
In response, the U.S. leveled sanctions on several officials, including Lam. Several Western countries have suspended their extradition treaties with the territory, and Australia and Britain have offered Hong Kongers easier paths to settle in those countries.
Beijing has lashed out at what it calls gross foreign interference in Chinese politics. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Wednesday that the disqualification was necessary to maintain rule of law and constitutional order in Hong Kong.
“We firmly support the (Hong Kong) government in performing its duties in accordance with the Standing Committee’s decision,” he said.
Earlier in the year, the four lawmakers were barred from seeking reelection in a vote originally scheduled for September - but remained in their posts. They were disqualified over their calls for foreign governments to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Beijing.
The government eventually postponed the planned September election by a year, citing the coronavirus, but the pro-democracy camp criticized the move as an attempt to block them from taking a majority of seats in the Legislature - which was a possibility in the coming election.
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.
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